Rip Van Winkle Themes
by Washington Irving

Rip Van Winkle book cover
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Rip Van Winkle Themes

The main themes in “Rip Van Winkle” are tradition versus modernity, the tribulations of marriage, and the natural versus the supernatural.

  • Tradition versus modernity: Rip represents America’s traditional, colonial past, as he wakes from his twenty-year sleep having missed the Revolutionary War and finds his village much changed.
  • The tribulations of marriage: The conflict between idle Rip and his domineering wife reflects the tension between peaceful past and busy present that Rip encounters after his slumber.
  • The natural versus the supernatural: Irving frames his story as a real example of American folklore and includes actual places and figures as well as supernatural events.

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Tradition versus Modernity

Rip Van Winkle’s timely twenty-year sleep resulted in his missing the American Revolution altogether. Rip stands as a relic of the past. He is an example of the simple, idle, and gentle villager. The village moves on to become bustling, crowded, and disputatious during his absence. There is a large contrast between the village Rip leaves and the village he returns to twenty years later. This contrast suggests how Irving views the clash between the traditional and the modern. The village and its villagers are portrayed as markedly altered after Rip’s twenty year departure. To Rip’s mind, some of those alterations are for the worse.

Rip was able to skip over the revolution, he was never required to take part, and politics and “changes of empire” mean little to him. Rip instead spends his time after his return enjoying the absence of his wife. He stays idle, goes on walks in the woods, and tells his mystical story. Rip Van Winkle stays in the past in this way, holding on to traditions and a simple, quiet life that is free from ambition and work. Although the village appears to be entirely different, it is also possible to see glimpses of the past just underneath the new changes. This can be seen in the changes that happened to the inn. The inn has a new owner, and the people there look different, but the painting of King George III still hangs. It is now painted over with a visage of George Washington, but the face of King George III still shows through. This layered portrait reveals the remnants of the past that the new country is based on, suggesting that the past, present, and future are inseparable parts of the same continuity.

The Tribulations of Marriage

One of the central themes in “Rip Van Winkle” revolves around Rip’s turbulent relationship with his abrasive wife. Rip is an obedient, simple and good man who has to deal with his nagging wife. Irving purposely gives only Rip’s point of view. Rip's wife, Dame Van Winkle, has no dialogue, and readers are not given her side of the story. Although Rip eventually gets what he wishes for—freedom from his wife and the ability to be idle—his wife lives on and dies without him. Rip’s laziness and inability to care for his farm, children, and home highlight why Dame Van Winkle is so domineering. Although she is portrayed negatively, Dame Van Winkle appears to have had good reasons to nag Rip. Rip is always working for others. Instead of fixing his own broken fence, he fixes a neighbor's. Instead of spending time with his own children, he spends time with the village children, letting his own go ragged and wild. Dame Van Winkle is left on her own because of Rip’s idle ways and tendency to help others instead of himself and his family.

Their conflict serves as a major catalyst in the story. Had Dame Van Winkle not nagged Rip as much, he may never have wandered into the woods to get away from her and find peace. Rip’s...

(The entire section is 850 words.)